Fourth place “exhausted” as Rafa shoots himself in the foot?

Birmingham City 1
Ridgewell 56

Liverpool 1
Gerrard 47

Earlier this week it was reported that Rafa Benitez was beginning to wonder if there was more to Alberto Aquilani’s run of absences from the Liverpool side than just injuries. It was suggested that Rafa thought that the Italian had a mental issue? After yesterday’s game perhaps one could be for forgiven for thinking that it is Rafa who has the mental problem, not with Aquilani’s health, but with that of Fernando Torres almost to the extent that it has become divisive.

Rafa’s decision to substitute Torres yesterday, with just over half an hour of the game to go when we were at one goal each, simply defies logic. What was the reason for this? To save him for Benfica on Thursday surely not, that’s four days away? Injury, Torres was spotted with an ice pack on his leg? No it was none of these, apparently Torres was tired, sorry “exhausted”

“Torres was exhausted, we played 60 minutes with 10 players the other day. Ngog was good because he was a pair of fresh legs and his movement was good.”

Perhaps Torres couldn’t go on having run around for so such a long and arduous time, I very much doubt it. He was not the only person who played for an hour with ten men only a few days ago and he is a man now and should be used to such physical demands. He was substituted in Lisbon so in fact did not have to endure as much as his team mates.

May be the desire wasn’t there? Again I doubt it. Torres went on record about our prospects of achieving fourth place and the need to win all but one of our games. Torres’ face, as he trudged off the St Andrews pitch, was not one that said “thank God for that I’m knackered” it was one of puzzlement and annoyance. Perhaps more significant was the face of Steven Gerrard which just showed in incredulity at his managers decision. Gerrard knew that his partner was the player most likely to be involved in a match winning move.

In previous years Rafa was criticised for rotating players too much. Part of his justification was that players would be fitter for the back end of the season when things really mattered. Well that time is now and now is the time we need everyone playing. There is nothing to save players for. We need them now, not for another day. They have to play. However, yesterday Rafa dropped Babel, Mascherano and Agger to the bench. Maxi, Kyrgiakos and Benayoun replaced them. Surely this match is more important than Benfica? Why? Because at this stage of the season, and given the situation we find ourselves in, it was the next match.

Of course it would have been nice if Rafa were able to substitute Torres with the game wrapped up however, the warning signs were there. Birmingham have not lost to a top four side at home this season and we, at the moment, are not a top four side and, if this continues, certainly won’t be come May.

We had our chances right from the off Torres went close then Maxi volleyed against the bar. At the other end Birmingham found Reina not in exactly “butterfingered” mood but certainly as if he was handling a hot coal from Jerome’s shot. He then completely missed the resulting corner. Our goal, just after the start of second half, should have settled the nerves. Gerrard’s corner was cleared and fell to Johnson. The full back’s shot was so bad and wide it found Gerrard moving back towards the centre from taking the kick. Gerrard showed him how it was done fainting past Bowyer and smashing it past Hart into the far corner with his right foot.

Although we fashioned a lead we should have learnt our lesson from last Saturdays Birmingham v Arsenal game. Alex McLeish’s men did not lie down, made it difficult for us and got their just deserts. McFadden was not tackled by Kyrgiakos allowed to cross to Ridgewell who was completely free as Johnson had amateurishly allowed himself to be dragged inside. Not the performance or actions of an £18m million player and one which must cast further doubts on his signing, at least from a defensive point of view.

Since Johnson returned to the side our run of clean sheets has disappeared. I am not blaming him individually but he has often been involved in the goals we have conceded. Going forward is one thing but perhaps he should concentrate on the job his position suggests? More than ever we need a disciplined defensive unit and on this evidence Rafa, despite the injuries and the expense, is still a long, long way from sorting out his full back problem. The only time we have looked anything near effective is when Carragher has been playing there.

Despite the defensive fragilities at the other end we had more than our fair share of chances to finish the game off. Rafa talked up Ngog’s “movement” and his “fresh pair of legs” and their ability to run around a lot. However it is no good, to adopt his basic prose, if those legs don’t enable the ball to be kicked into the goal! Ngog thrashed one wide when perhaps he should kept a cooler head or squared. Gerrard wafted one over the bar and then Maxi missed a volley. Babel found the side netting when perhaps a square ball into the six yard area would have been better? Ngogs “fresh legs” and “movement” missed a chance that Torres would have probably scored, super fit, “exhausted”, supported by a pair of paramedics or on a drip!

So here we again playing the “what the f*cks going on in Rafa’s head” game. Perhaps he felt that we could afford to draw this game and still win the others? A confident but ultimately reckless and foolhardy gamble. To lose or drop points when you’ve made the most of the resources available to you is one thing but to throw them away, by withdrawing the one player who could make a difference, is another.

Rafa needs to have faith in his players and to listen to how they feel. Gerrard and Torres yesterday clearly wanted to do well for the club and win the game. They were up for it, “exhausted” or otherwise. However, Rafa with his meddling, simply got in the way of that? He didn’t listen or appreciate their viewpoint or their mood and their faces, as Torres ran off, proved that.

Before yesterday people have said we could afford to lose one of our remaining games, well this is it now, there is no room for slip ups. We need to play our strongest side. And the future? Rafa still has large amount of goodwill at Anfield however, decisions like yesterdays will only use it up and will eventually lead to it being er…in his words “exhausted”.

Birmingham: Hart, Carr, Ridgewell, Johnson, Dann, Bowyer, Ferguson, Fahey, Gardner, Jerome, McFadden (Phillips 78) Substitutes; Taylor, Parnaby, Gregory Vignal, Larsson, Marcos Madera, Phillips, Benitez

Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Carragher, Gerrard, Benayoun (Babel 71), Maxi, Lucas, Torres (Ngog 65), Kuyt (Aquilani 81) Substitutes: Cavalieri, Agger, Degen, Aquilani, Mascherano, Babel, Ngog

Att: 27,909

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